Saturday, November 19, 2005

WaPo on Woodward

The Washington Post editorial page today addresses Bob Woodward's exciting news about his involvement--and his lack of discretion--in the Plame thing. At least the Post isn't pretending Woodward doesn't exist at all (as appeared, for so long, to be the NYT strategy on Judith Miller).

While the Post points clearly to what Woodward did most wrong here (namely: commenting on the investigation--even impugning Fitzgerald himself--as he declined to admit he played a role), the article judges sufficient his public apology and moves, in its conclusion, to an irresponsibly poor defense of its star reporter:
But over the years innumerable cases of official corruption and malfeasance have come to light thanks to sources being able to count on confidentiality. It's astonishing to see so many people -- especially in the journalism establishment -- forget that now. Many of those who condemn Mr. Woodward applauded when The Post recently revealed the existence of CIA prisons around the world, a story that relied on unnamed sources.

Is there a distinction to be made based on the motives of the leakers? If so, Mr. Woodward might have had to pass up his first big scoops three decades ago, because his Watergate source, Deep Throat -- recently revealed as FBI official W. Mark Felt -- was disgruntled at having been passed over for the post of FBI director. Newspapers face difficult questions all the time in evaluating the reliability of sources and the appropriateness of publishing their secrets. But if potential sources come to believe that they cannot count on promises of confidentiality, more than the media will suffer.
This discussion, of course, has been going on for awhile (see Helmut's post on this very point, here), but the Post presents this argument as if it were new. Worse still, in this context--especially in this context--this argument strikes me as particularly weak, part straw man, part question-begging. The latter is rooted in the assumption that the secret revelation of Plame's identity actually meant anything at all, that the revelation would bring reveal corruption or malfeasance. The straw man? Those misguided lefties who want it both ways, who yearn for the prosecution only of those they don't want in office.

But that's not what's at stake, here. There are better ways to have defended Woodward, starting with--as the editorial did--the acknowledgement that he made some poor decisions. Starting there, don't leave the rest of the connections to us. Point out that Woodward judiciously ignores the scoop (doesn't he?), that, as an experienced reporter, he knows an empty story when he sees it. Say that his silence is about his wanting secret informers to feel safe talking to him, that he is a capable enough reporter to be able to sift a real story from a Rove press bomb. That makes sense.

But don't stop there: this argument is meaningless without the follow-through, without the condemnation of those folks too stupid or arrogant or politically-motivated to have ignored the "leak." One has to be willing, in saying this is about sources, to say that it was Novak's fundamental lack of journalistic discretion--how could anyone really believe Plame's identity mattered? that it really made a difference in the debate?--that put journalistic ethics on the line. Indeed, guys like Novak are a bigger threat to the future use of anonymous sources than anyone else.

So why isn't anyone saying that?

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